Friday, January 30, 2009

Avishai Cohen's Big Rain

Avishai Cohen's "After the Big Rain," which prominently featured keyboardist Jason Lindner and guitarist Lionel Loueke, was one of the best albums of 2007; the only problem brought up by the glossies, if it could be called a problem, was that the album sounded more like a Lionel Loueke record than an Avishai Cohen record. Cohen, who has probably had to spend his entire life contending with people asking "Avishai Cohen, you mean like the bass player," was probably miffed at these reviews. "Flood," the second part in his "Big Rain" trilogy, proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the vision behind these albums is his and his alone.

Lindner and Loueke are both gone, and while their playing was part of what made "After the Big Rain" such a rich album they are not missed here. Cohen opted for a bass-less trio, and the only hold-over from "After the Big Rain" is drummer Daniel Freedman (the other member of the trio is pianist Yonatan Avishai, who together with Freedman and Cohen make up 3/4s of Third World Love). There are obvious differences between the two albums: "After the Big Rain" featured cutting edge electronics while "Flood" is all acoustic; "After the Big Rain" featured vocals on many tracks courtesy of Loueke. The differences are all surface though- Cohen's vision for the two albums is in many ways identical. Motifs from "Big Rain" resurface on "Flood," and his playing on the new album is related if not identical to his playing on "After the Big Rain."

Musically, "Flood" is exactly like it's title. The sounds- initial drips of Avishai's piano which lead to waves of Freedman's percussion and finally violent cascades of Cohen's trumpet- evoke quite literally the sounds of a flood. In a sense, "Flood" is a more unified album musically than "After the Big Rain," as the band has a tendency to act more like a single musician than on the previous album; on "Big Rain" there was usually a clear soloist, and while the band was interactive, it was easy to tell whose turn it was. On "Flood," however, the players weave in and out organically, for the service of the music and the concept. Highly recommended.

I'm curious to hear Cohen's next record, which according to his website will be the first part of this trilogy ("Before the Flood?" "Before the Big Rain?" "Clouds?"), and will be a big band date. After "After the Big Rain," an odd instrumentation combo record, and "Flood," a bass-less trio record, it will be interesting to hear how Cohen's concept fits into a large ensemble.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More Silliness Courtesy of JazzTimes

I'm not going to pretend that I'm shocked that my pick for the best jazz album of the year (Vijay Iyer's "Tragicomic") didn't even make the JazzTimes top 50, or that I'm shocked that my top 10 only matched up once with their's (Bill Frisell's "History, Mystery," the second best album of the year in my list, was number 5 in JazzTimes'). I will, however, make a few short complaints:




Now that that's over with, I can go back to writing like an educated journalist. While I'm sure that the Boz Scaggs and Gambarini/Jones releases filled some sort of quotient for "vocal jazz" albums on the list (Patricia Barber's "The Cole Porter Mix" and Cassandra Wilson's "Loverly" which are both actually good, also made the list at numbers 29 and 8, respectively). Of course, there has been good vocal jazz this year, and Boz Scaggs' place on the list over "Moss" is a travesty. In fact, I can barely think of a worse travesty than the lack of "Moss" on this list except in hypotheticals; like, for example, if Dianne Reeves' "When You Know" was named the album of the year.

Or, say, if Joe Lovano's "Symphonica" were named the best album of the year. Luckily, JazzTimes doesn't think that "Symphonica" is the single best album of the year (they think that The Charles Lloyd Quartet's "Rabo De Nube" is better, but nothing in my Top 10). I've already given my thoughts on Lovano's Symphonica here, writing any more about it would be like flogging a dead horse.

As for the rest of it, I was pretty happy to see that "Miles From India" (#6) got some love from JazzTimes, which is usually more accepting of new concepts than their older evil brother Downbeat, and that Carla Bley's "Appearing Nightly" (#7), which certainly would have made my list if I'd heard it just a week sooner, was featured in the top 10.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Jazz's Renaissance Through Rap?

It's not a jazz album. But so what? I've reviewed Girl Talk here before, and I didn't even bother with an excuse beyond the fact that it was one of the best albums of the year- why can't I write a review of one of the best rap albums of the year? Plus- and don't take this the wrong way, "The Renaissance" is a rap record, not one of the Jazz-with-a-capital-"J" variety- there are more brilliant young jazz musicians in one place here than you will find on many new jazz albums. The luminaries include keyboardist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, guitarist Mike Moreno, and another guitarist- perhaps you've heard of him- Kurt "Most Influential Jazz Guitar Player of His Generation" Rosenwinkel. If that name alone isn't enough to excuse me for writing about rap in this setting, what is?

There is no improvisation on "The Renaissance," and the musicians who are featured (mostly as parts of various live bands in the studio, believe it or not) are called upon to do nothing but groove. This is a good thing. Anyone who's listened to Glasper's "In My Element" or Rosenwinkel's latest, "The Remedy," know that these guys can groove better than anyone out there. The one track built off of samples, "Move," is the album's most ambitious track and one of its highlights. The beat, created by the late, great J Dilla, fits right in with the rest of the album, and if it weren't for Dilla's trademarked audible vinyl hiss, you wouldn't be able to tell that it was anything other than another live funky groove. Other highlights include "Life Is Better," which is perhaps the best piece of music that Norah Jones has ever attached her name to (she sings the hook), and the D'Angelo guest spot, "Believe."

Q-Tip's rapping is just as spot on as when he most recently released an album all the way back in 1999. "The Renaissance" is even better than "Amplified," though, which suffered from too much production. For the most part, as opposed to dissing other rappers (with the exception of the a capella beginning of "Dance on Glass"), Q-Tip is content to rap about history: "Life Is Better" consists almost entirely of shout-outs to all of his favorite MCs from Kool Herc to Lil Wayne.

As in 2007, the best rap record of 2008 was a battle-cry from an MC long off the scene; granted, Q-Tip is not quite the lyricist that Pharoahe Monch is, and "The Renaissance" doesn't have the same number of immediately quotable genius one-liners that can be found in "Desire" ("Think! Even you was ashes you couldn't urn," "I lay in the cut like neosporin," and about fifty others), but what "The Renaissance" lacks in immediate lyrical nastiness it more than makes up for in groove. The best moment on the record occurs near the beginning of "Believe," when the full band drops out with the exception of the bass and drums to allow Q-Tip to begin his rap like a percussive accompaniment: "Of the things we believe/there's a whole lot of work/ gotta roll up our sleeves." Who knows when Q-Tip will come out with another new record, but now that he's finally rolled his sleeves up he's come up with his best solo album, and one of the best albums of the year.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One Hell of an Overdue William Parker Review

As far as I can tell, I've been promising a review of William Parker's "Petit Oiseau" for at least three months. You're just going to have to take my word for it, though, that I have been incredibly, horrifically, hell, excruciatingly busy recently. As some of you know, I am a staff writer for the Berklee College of Music newspaper, The Groove, in addition to my responsibilities as a broke college student whose sources of income do not include amongst themselves "snarky jazz-blogging asshole." I do, however, keep up with the music (I can even get it for free now that I have two different papers I can use for credentials!), and whenever possible I plan on continuing to write reviews of new jazz albums and general nastiness about the jazz press (get excited for next time when I go through the Jazz Times Top 50, which includes Joe Lovano's syrupy "Symphonica" as the second best album of the year).

No one can accuse William Parker of being stingy or of allowing himself to sink into obscurity while other, younger free jazz musicians get all of the acclaim; he has appeared in a feature in Downbeat (remember the last time Downbeat had a feature article about a contemporary free jazz musician who wasn't young and sexy like Nicole Mitchell? Oh yeah, never) and has released two records a year since 2005. That said, however, Parker's recent outpouring of creativity has come at the expense of regular dates with his quartet, one of the best units in jazz. The last date, 2005's "Sound Unity," was the third part in a trilogy of sorts that included 2000's game-changing "O'Neal's Porch" and 2002's "Raining On the Moon." All three albums featured the trio playing lyrical free jazz in the OCDC ("Ornette Coleman Don Cherry") vein- the music was as melodic as any straight-ahead jazz but with enough craziness courtesy of saxophonist Rob Brown and Trumpeter Lewis Barnes that it retained its edge.

Those three records were all about the frontline, Barnes and Brown, coming up with crazy melodies. "Petit Oiseau" is all about the rhythm section, which in addition to Parker includes drummer and long-time co-conspirator Hamid Drake. The comparison's to Coleman's classic late-50s quartet are still relevant, of course, but by now Parker and Drake have been playing together for so long that they sound telepathic in comparison to Coleman's alternatingly madcap and pensive rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. Besides, Parker is more interested in making his music funky: imagine an entire record of variations of the rhythm section part to Coleman's "Ramblin'" and you begin to get the idea. The grooves on tracks like "Grove Suite" and "The Golden Ball" recall funky world music, but with a looseness only heard in free jazz.

Of course, even though the focus has shifted a bit, Parker's horn players sound as good here as they do on his other records. Rob Brown's saxophone playing is rivaled in ferocity only by Rudresh Mahanthappa's, and on this album it is like an explosion in the center of Parker and Drake's grooves. Barnes, on the other hand, floats over the proceedings like the hummingbird on the album's cover. Together they make up the yin and yang in Parker's music; sometimes sweet, sometimes sour. On an uptempo number like "Four for Tommy," the difference in style becomes readily apparent: Barnes is interested in making music out of sheer sound, while Brown creates odd melodic and harmonic linear statements out of thin air.